BALTIMORE - Ask him before the game how he’d feel about six innings of one-run ball from Erick Fedde, and Davey Martinez would’ve scooped it up in a heartbeat and been content with it ‘til the cows come home.
But when that very proposition came true tonight, Martinez was faced with a decision he never could have foreseen. Fedde had only thrown 66 pitches in those six innings. His bullpen was rested and ready to go, trying to protect a one-run lead over the Orioles. Would he let his young starter re-take the mound for an unexpected seventh inning, or would he just go to his bullpen right then and there?
Martinez went with his bullpen. And the result was one of the more agonizing losses of the season.
Wander Suero and Tony Sipp combined to allow three runs during a disastrous bottom of the seventh, and when Javy Guerra and Matt Grace poured more gasoline on the fire in the eighth the Nationals were left to stew over a 9-2 loss to Baltimore that felt like it was handed to the home team on a silver platter.
What was shaping up to be a nice-and-easy, two-game sweep of the majors’ worst club instead wrapped up as a frustrating series split that sends the Nats off to Atlanta in a sour mood. They could’ve been four games back in the loss column heading into a four-game weekend series against the division leaders. Instead, they’ll be five back in the loss column and 6 1/2 games overall, facing significant pressure to win at least three of four.
It didn’t have to be this way. But the Nationals, who piled up eight runs during Tuesday’s win, managed only two runs on four hits against a consortium of Orioles pitchers tonight.
And despite the dominant effort by their fill-in starter, they squandered away a late lead with another bullpen meltdown that included curious decisions by their manager.
Up 2-1 in the seventh, Martinez elected to pull Fedde despite his exceptionally low pitch count. But Suero immediately got into trouble, walking Trey Mancini to open the frame and then giving up a line-drive single to Chance Sisco. Two batters later, Anthony Santander singled home the tying run.
Now, another curious decision. With Sipp warm in the bullpen and Chris Davis (owner of an .095 batting average against lefties) at the plate, Martinez left Suero in. Davis proceeded to drive in the go-ahead run with a single.
Only after all that did Martinez walk to the mound and signal for Sipp, who would issue a walk and then allow a sacrifice fly to the only two batters he faced.
And when Guerra and Grace gave up five tack-on runs in the eighth, the Nationals didn’t even have a reasonable chance of mounting a last-ditch rally to save face.
The Nats bullpen wound up surrendering eight runs on nine hits and two walks in only two innings. This after the starter allowed one run on five hits in six innings, facing only one batter beyond the minimum.
Fedde hadn’t pitched for the Nationals in 27 days, but he hadn’t pitched for anyone in 15 days, having had his most recent start for Double-A Harrisburg skipped in case he was needed back in the big leagues.
Whatever fears of rust there might have been when he took the mound tonight, though, were immediately washed away, thanks to a 1-2-3 bottom of the first. And Fedde never let up.
Keeping the ball almost exclusively on the ground - 11 of his first 18 outs came on grounders - Fedde recorded outs quickly and gave Martinez little reason to consider turning to his bullpen early.
Mancini did belt a 3-1 fastball into the bleachers in right-center for a fourth-inning homer, but that was the extent of the Orioles’ offensive output against Fedde.
He was helped in part by his batterymate, with Yan Gomes throwing out back-to-back baserunners in the bottom of the third. (The Orioles also deserve some share of the credit for running into those outs.)
The game was tight throughout, though, with the Nationals unable to make the most of an early scoring opportunity against Baltimore starter Aaron Brooks. The journeyman right-hander loaded the bases with one out in the third, then gave up a sacrifice fly to Adam Eaton.
An infield single by Anthony Rendon loaded the bases again and brought Brandon Hyde out of the home dugout for a pitching change. Juan Soto scorched a line drive to left-center off Gabriel Ynoa, but Stevie Wilkerson tracked it down to get out of the inning with only one run across the plate.
The Nationals would produce only two baserunners in 4 1/3 innings against Ynoa. Fortunately, those came in the form of back-to-back doubles by Trea Turner and Eaton in the top of the fifth. Unfortunately, that one extra run wasn’t nearly enough on a night when the Nats bullpen turned in its ugliest performance in a while.